At the 2022 NCAA Gymnastics Regionals in Norman, Oklahoma, Suki Pfister was the only Ball State Cardinal competing.
The third-year gymnast traveled with the coaching staff to the competition but was without the teammates that she competed with all season.
It didn’t feel right.
“I was by myself with the coaches and I literally told them at regionals that next year I wanted to go as a team,” Pfister said.
And this year they are. Pfister will have her teammates by her side.
“It will be fun to be with the whole team and cheering each other on. It’s going to be fun,” Pfister said.
With a Co-Mid-American Conference (MAC) Regular Season Championship, a second-place finish at the MAC Championship Meet and a nationally-ranked 34th-best NQS score of 196.395, Ball State earned an at-large team bid to the NCAA Regionals in Norman, Oklahoma, the first time since 1999 the Cardinals will compete at regionals as a team and just the second time in program history.
“I think every year in gymnastics is based on the team that you have and what are the injuries and what are we dealing with,” head coach Joanna Saleem said. “You can predict out this amazing group on paper but then you get into the year and you have to face the different things, whether that'd be injuries or personal things or school, there's a lot of life that happens that affects their ability to perform. And this year, this group has been super strong in just being able to adapt to those changes.”
A historic season
The Cardinals tied their fifth-best score in program history and tied for the best MAC Championship finish since 2002 to cap off what has been one of the best seasons in the program.
Ball State broke its program for team score twice this season, the first being a 196.550 score at the Tennessee Collegiate Classic Jan. 20, followed by a 196.900 against Western Michigan March 12.
The Tennesse Collegiate Classic was a standout meet for the Cardinals who tallied a program-record seven individual scores of 9.900-or-higher while setting the team score record on vault with a 49.250 before tying it against Bowling Green March 3. Additionally, Ball State registered the top four beam scores in program history this season, led by a program record 49.350 in Tennessee.
“I think the biggest thing is it tells them that they've been consistent and that's something that you can use for confidence,” Saleem said. “We don't have to do anything different. We don't have to do anything exceptional. We just have to continue to do what we've been doing all year and for them that's familiar and it'll be easy to be able to go there versus going into a meet and being like, ‘I have to have the best performance I've ever had in this specific meet.’ That creates a lot of pressure. So we have continued to just come back to do the gymnastics we've been doing…It’s muscle memory.”
Pfister was awarded the All-Mid-American Conference (MAC) Specialist of the Year for the second year on the bounce and named to the All-MAC First Team while also earning the program’s first All-American Selection by the Women’s Collegiate Gymnastics Association.
“The last couple of years she's worked really hard at trying to find her place where she works well, but this team supports her and she really gets a lot of energy from them and the ability to perform well when she's working with her group,” Saleem said. “She does best when she's having fun and being goofy and having a good time. So for us to watch that growth has been really special. And she's not done. There's still so much development that has happened.”
Pfister was not the only Cardinal to earn MAC honors this season. Third-year Victoria Henry earned an All-MAC Second-Team selection after finishing the regular season, ranked second in the conference and 38th in the nation with a 9.885 NQS score.
“I’m just doing what I do, honestly,” Henry said. “I knew I had some really great potential and I really think I’m up there unlocking it so I am just vibing with it.”
Henry won the vault event at the 2023 MAC Championships with a career-best 9.950 which elevated her NQS score to a tied-35th nationally 9.895. In addition to winning vault, Henry finished tied fourth on floor with a 9.900 and tied eighth all-around at 39.075.
Ball State showed out at the 2023 MAC Championships with four gymnasts being named to the All-Tournament Team including Pfister, Henry, third-year Hannah Ruthberg and fourth-year Megan Teter.
“I think it was before we even got to school [this year], we saw who was coming and we were like, ‘Oh yeah, these are some good people, this is going to be great,’” Henry said.
Ruthberg finished fifth all-around with a score of 39.300, which tied for the eighth-best all-around score in program history while Teter tied for second on bars with a 9.925 and a 9.900 on the floor which was tied fourth with her teammate and helped solidify second place as a team for the Cardinals.
“I knew that the possibility was there for a while on being able to have those kinds of outcomes, but again, you got to go back to focusing on what we have control over which is, “Am I staying on? Am I being consistent? am I working on sticking landings and hitting handstands? What are my legs looking like?’ So building those routines and getting the level of difficulty there, but then making sure you're doing that as cleanly as possible,” Saleem said. And that's something that this group has just really embraced of saying, ‘Hey, I'm gonna control every little bit of what I've got,’ and then still have fun while doing it.”
As Ball State reaped what it sowed this season, Saleem was named the MAC Coach of the Year for the second time in three years.
“I was definitely surprised. All of the coaches in the MAC have worked hard and have done a great job,” said Saleem in a Ball State Athletics article March 20. “I'm humbled by it and it means a lot to me. It isn't just me, a lot of people contribute to the success we've had. It was great for Marissa [Nychyk] to be co-champion and for Victoria and Hannah to get recognition was really exciting.”
As well as propelling their teams forward, the four have earned individual bids to the second round of the NCAA Regionals, which will be held on March 30. Joining them in individual competitions will be second-year Grace Summer who qualified to compete on beam. Pfister and Henry will compete on vault while Teter will compete on bars and floor and Ruthberg will be one of the four student-athletes competing as an individual all-around gymnast.
“I knew that we had what we wave to be able to make this program get to that place,” Saleem said. “So you know, to be able to see that kind of come to fruition, we've missed it like just by .04 one year and like you're just right there on the edge of the last few years. Being able to get that locked in and know that's going to happen was just overwhelming in some ways. But then the other part of it is we're not done. We've got to focus we've got to be able to because they're really competitive. So being able to it's not just like, ‘Oh, this is it, you know they're hungry to be able to go out and perform well and hopefully make it a little bit further down the road.”
The Cardinals will face North Carolina State in the first round of competition with the winner moving on to compete in the second round on March 30 against top-seeded Oklahoma, No. 16 Ohio State and No. 17 Arkansas. The Wolfpack ranks four spots above Ball State with an NQS score of 196.460.
“We’re trying to appreciate the highs, but not ride them too long because we still have work to do,” Saleem said. “Not be too up and down with our emotions, but just be able to stay present. Stay right here where our feet are and do the stuff that’s in front of us.”
Heading into the competition, Herny said Ball State is following a motto that they have had all season: Hold onto your blueberries.
“They just made it up,” she said. “[When] you do something really good, like stick something, Joanna will be like, ‘Pick those blueberries and keep them, and we’re going to spend them later at competition.”
Ball State will be carrying a bushel of blueberries to Oklahoma, hoping to spend them all in the best places.